How do you feel about the word doctrine? What about the word theology? Doctrine is defined as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.” Theology is the study of God and His relation to the world. To folks today both of those sound pretty boring. Principles? Studying god? System of belief? Who cares as long as I feel something during worship? Why study about God when I sense His presence? Can’t we just be led by the Spirit without having to drag it down with doctrine, study, principles, and theology? The resounding answer to each of those questions is no. Absolutely not.
John 4:21-24 talks about how the true worshipers will worship God in spirit AND in truth. Why must it be both? Because if you are not worshiping in truth then you are worshiping a god of your own creation. You are worshiping what you want God to be and how you want God to relate to you. And that most likely is a false god. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I believe that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of the child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.” The most important thing you can do is study God. If you are going to devote your life to Him and worship Him, then you ought to know whom it is you are worshiping!
There are many examples in the Bible where the people are indeed worshiping in their “spirit” but certainly not in truth. But one of the clearest illustrations of where that leads is found in Exodus 32. Most of you are familiar with the general description of the story; it is where the Israelites have decided to make for themselves a golden calf to worship while Moses is still on the mountain with God. The last thing the Israelites had done (in Exodus 24) was commit to following the Lord and being obedient to Him. They participated in a ceremony of sacrifices and offerings committing themselves to this covenant. Moses, his aids, and the elders then witnessed the very glory of the presence of God. God’s presence covered the mountain like a cloud and His glory was like a consuming fire. But the people got impatient. In only a month’s time, they decided to make a god for themselves who would lead them. So Aaron, the future first High-Priest of the Israelites, gathers their jewelry, melts it down, and forms with an engraving tool a golden calf. They declared that to be their god – as the one who had led them out of Egypt!
Aaron announced that they would have a feast and offerings unto the Lord. They built an altar, made a feast to the Lord, and “rose up to play.” This phrase includes drunken and sexually immoral activities that went along with pagan worship. Yet they were doing this "to the Lord"? The Israelites not only made a false idol but were mixing false idol worship with worship to the true God (also known as syncretism). What an insult to the true God! Even if Aaron thought they were simply adding this golden calf to their worship of God, he was still violating the commands of God to have no other gods besides Him. You can’t add something to God and think that is ok. This shows us how important it is to worship in spirit and in truth. We might think, well, hey they were still worshiping, right? But that was not worshiping in truth. And worshiping in something other than the truth is idol worship. It makes a mockery of God. And God's response, had Moses not pleaded for mercy, was to destroy them for their sin. His wrath burned hot against them, and He was going to consume them. It shows us how serious this sin was. Sometimes it seems impossible that so soon after receiving the commandments and revelation of God that the Israelites could sink so low to mold a golden idol for themselves. But the Christian experience today is oftentimes the same. It might reveal something of the superficial nature of one’s faith how quickly they turn away from the truth. How often do we think we can set aside truth, that boring thing called doctrine and theology, to just worship in spirit? But it is our doctrine and theology that makes our worship in the spirit either honoring or dishonoring to God.
Because Moses delayed in those 40 days on the mountain with God, the Israelites abandoned the God who had rescued them, provided for them, sheltered them, and protected them. How long does it take us in our pain or in the perceived silence of God for us to turn away from him? How quickly do we turn back to our old ways of sin or our own strength and desires when we get impatient with God? How we handle God’s ordained delays is a good measure of our spiritual maturity. If we allow those delays to make us simply to take our eyes off Him, then we drift into sin. But if we allow such times to deepen our faith and strengthen our walk with God, then those times are of good use.
Granted, we don’t typically melt down our jewelry in idol worship but we can turn our hearts away just as easily. How can we consider this at play in our own culture then? How often do “churches” do worship that is only in spirit and not in truth? This is why we must be discerning about what we are taught and in what spirit we are worshiping. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about the ability to discern false prophets and false teachings. He says, “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” Satan, false prophets, and false teachers will disguise themselves as light. Satan wants the bad to appear to be good so that we will be all the more tempted by it. We are to therefore judge the spirit to see from where it came. John states in 1 John 4, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
We see this discernment in the people of Berea when Paul came and preached the Gospel to them. They are praised for searching out to know if what Paul had taught was true. But they didn’t just sit around and think about it and decide based on their own feelings. The Bereans didn’t say, “Well, this just feels right to me.” Or “I had this great moment of experience and elation when I heard Paul talking so I’m going to follow what he says.” Not at all! We must then ask the question, “Based on what are we discerning?” In other words, in order to judge whether a line is straight or not, you must know the characteristics of a straight line. We only know when something is crooked because we have a concept of what straight is. Likewise, you can only judge whether or not something is from God if you know what things from God would be. We can’t judge based on our own concepts or ideals, we must judge them against something accurate, against some standard, to know whether it is from truth or not. So how did the Bereans do it? In Acts 17 it says they searched the Scriptures daily. They examined the Word of God every day to check it against what Paul was teaching. Keep in mind, at this point in time, the “Word of God” was only the Old Testament. They were doing that "boring drudgery" of studying God’s Word, reading the Scriptures, checking their doctrine, and assessing their theology. And they were called noble for doing it. That is why it is so important for us to do the same – studying God’s word, reading the Scriptures, checking your doctrine, and assessing your theology.
They were doing that diligent work to make sure they didn’t just seize upon some new teaching because it sounded nice, or made them feel good about themselves, or didn’t make them feel too guilty about their sins. They checked the Scriptures. They judged the Spirit in which Paul taught against the Spirit of God. And for that reason, it says that many of them believed. And that belief, I feel sure, was a confident belief that would not be swayed by persecution or doubt because they had rightly judged those teachings against the truth. And they saw that it was the truth.
In our culture, though, the whole idea of discernment and judgment has such a bad connotation. For some reason, saying you have “judged” something will get you labeled something not so nice. It’s as though our culture as declared that judging and being judgmental are the same thing, but they’re not. Judgmental is defined as “tending to judge people too quickly and critically.” But judging is defined as “forming an opinion through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises.” Those are two entirely different concepts. We have to judge things, and honestly we wouldn’t want to live in a culture that did not judge things. We judge things by examining the evidence and considering the facts. We make judgments like that every day – is that car going to stop at the intersection? Is this meat safe to eat? Is what this person telling me the truth? But in those judgments, we must know by what standard we are judging, what evidence and facts we are considering. In spiritual matters, it means we must have sound doctrine, theology, and Biblical understanding so that we too can rightly judge things against the Spirit and Word of God. Judging by your own feelings and opinions will not get you to the Bereans, it will get you to the golden calf. But judging according to the Word of God will strengthen your faith and ensure you are continuing to walk in the true light of God.